Doctor Hmph: Part 2: Why Some Fans Are Underwhelmed
Guest contributor Caleb Smith takes a look at some of the more common fan criticisms of late.
In my last article, I contemplated the seeming increase in negativity among the Doctor Who fan community. As an absurd optimist myself, reading through tons of negative comments and a number of negative reviews after every episode has been somewhat depressing. However, I don’t deny that there have been some problems in recent episodes that make the show harder to enjoy. This isn’t to say that this is a bad series or even a less than epic one. Indeed, I think 7b is one of the best runs in a while. Nonetheless, the problems in my last article add to one more to dampen my enjoyment: this is the repetition of flaws.
As I see it, every episode has its flaws. Some have more, some have less, but all do. In Series 7, though, it seems to me that the same flaws have been recurring. Instead of variety (e.g. one episode having great characters and a weak plot while another has a superb plot with so-so characters), the same issues have come back over and over. Seeing the same flaws every week (or nearly so) tends to inspire melancholy and a negative mindset. Specifically, I think these are the three recurring problems in Series 7:
Not Enough Clara
One problem evident in the past few episodes has been weak use of our new companion, Clara Oswald, except for hints at her mystery. While I like Clara and think she is a great companion, she seems to be underutilized. This may stem from the fact that she is entering a series halfway through and only has a few episodes to prove herself. Regardless, she could be handled better. The prime example of this is “Cold War.” Many viewers, myself included, noticed that Clara probably could have been dropped from the episode entirely without it suffering. This is sad, because Clara is a brand new companion and we want to get to know her.
This problem also appeared in, oddly enough, “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS,” in which she featured prominently. While she had a couple good moments (mainly in the Eye of Harmony room and on the cliff with the Doctor), it seemed her presence was more functional than personal. Clara only really did three things for the episode:
- Give the Doctor someone to rescue,
- Continue to give the Doctor a mystery, and
- Give the audience a chance to check out some cool rooms in the TARDIS.
Basically, while she served those purposes well, I felt like Clara did not contribute anything unique as a person. Interestingly enough, I feel this is a place where Neil Cross has shined. Despite its other issues, “The Rings of Akhaten” gave Clara her best role besides “The Bells of Saint John,” and “Hide” also made good use of her presence (especially her showdown with the TARDIS). Unfortunately, “The Crimson Horror” is very Clara-lite, but I am hopeful for “Nightmare in Silver,” because it looks from the trailer and presence of the Maitland children that Clara will take a strong role. The finale will also obviously give Clara prominence, so I am optimistic. By Series 8 I expect she will be more firmly established.
Another issue that seems to have run through Series 7 is disappointing endings. Almost every week there have been some complaints on how the episode ended. Now, I am skeptical that the problem is necessarily, as many have said, “rushed endings.” A story can easily have a short and satisfying ending, and conversely could have a long and unfulfilling resolution. Even so, several conclusions lately have either seemed rushed or just not well done, even when the rest of the episode was marvelous. The poster episode of this problem is “The Power of Three.” After a grand build-up, the threat is ended in 30 seconds with a touch of the sonic. The haunting deus ex machina had returned.
Other episodes also had this problem. In “Cold War” a Martian ship happens to hear Skaldak’s distress call and saves the sub (and the world) out of nowhere. The ending to “The Rings of Akhaten” was somewhat clever but slightly incredible in my opinion. As for “The Angels Take Manhattan,” it was a great emotional send-off for Amy, but it cheated Rory a bit and the sudden, aftermath tragedy seemed a bit clumsy and questionable. Need I also mention “The Snowmen,” in which, despite being utterly brilliant throughout, mere tears defeated the Great Intelligence (I like Moffat, but the “emotion-wins” endings in his era get a bit tiresome)? Some would throw “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS” in this list, but I would not. I thought it was kind of clever, and endings in which a button undoes everything are often necessary for time-wimey, hopeless ending stories.
Not every episode has been this way, though. “The Bells of Saint John” was a bit ingenious to me, and it was well-paced. “Asylum of the Daleks” wrapped up very naturally, and everyone was touched by the conclusion to “A Town Called Mercy.” What’s more, I’m hopeful for both “Nightmare in Silver” and “The Name of the Doctor.”
The last problem that comes to mind as being shared through much of Series 7 is focus failure. This can occur when an episode is hyped up as one thing and delivers not so much on that point as on something else, when an episode focuses on one aspect so much as to lack significantly in other areas, or when an episode cannot nail down a main point. A great example of this is “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship.” Even though I liked the episode, it was presented as a fun adventure with…well…dinosaurs on a spaceship. Yet the dinosaurs barely played any role, leaving the character plot points in the focus. So while it may have done well in that regard, it didn’t as much deliver on its main promise.
This issue can also be seen to a lesser extent in “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS.” It was hyped up a deep and vast exploration of what’s in the TARDIS, but a lot of the episode consisted of but mere glimpses of some of the most intriguing rooms. Now, it was by no means a failure, but I was slightly disappointed. “Cold War” actually makes a better example. The focus was so much on being an Ice Warrior episode that the conclusion and Clara were neglected.
Some episodes did their focus well. “The Snowmen,” for instance, was in reality all about meeting Clara and not the Snowmen. That’s okay, because we all knew that and wanted it. In “The Bells of Saint John,” the main point was Clara, but the actual threat was also well-emphasized. The balance there worked very well. “A Town Called Mercy” was a Wild West story, and in a weird Doctor Who way it really came through on that point. “The Rings of Akhaten” was hyped as a cool alien world and more practically was meant to introduce Clara as a proper companion on her first journey, and in those regards it excelled.
In the coming episodes, this could go either way. “Nightmare in Silver” is really a “make the Cybermen awesome again” episode, and I expect that to be the focus. If it can do so while also providing a good resolution and handling Clara well, I will be very impressed. The finale could go many ways, because with Clara’s mystery, the Silence, and the Doctor’s name Moffat has a lot to tie together. I hope that it will stay coherent, and I think it will.
Hope is Key
As the optimist I am, the way I handle these flaws is by loving the good parts (Clara mystery! Ice Warrior! TARDIS swimming pool! Eye of Harmony!) and hoping expectantly for the greatness yet to come. I am really excited about “Nightmare in Silver” and “The Name of the Doctor,” and I also feel that Series 8 will be a time when the issues of Series 7 will have worked themselves out and things can settle into smooth Who goodness. With this in mind, I’m happy. Even with these flaws, Doctor Who is my favorite show, and it will probably stay that way for years to come. So onwards we go, marching towards the 50th anniversary while singing happy songs.
“I am and always will be the optimist, the hoper of far-flung hopes, and the dreamer of improbable dreams!” – The Doctor